GREENSBORO, N.C. – While growing up in Greensboro, Wesley Van Dorn often traveled to the coast for fishing trips with his family, developing a love for the water. With a motivation to serve his country, he married both passions into an enrollment at the United States Naval Academy.
Van Dorn ended up as a helicopter pilot, wed his wife Nicole, and had two sons; a 4-year-old and 14-month-old. He had been promoted to lieutenant in what was an admirable path and rewarding life.
Until it ended.
“These are tough things,” Wes’ mother, Susan, said to FOX8 in April. “I was actually at the doctor’s office with my elderly mother.”
In January 2014, Wes was 29 years old and participating in a training exercise. The helicopter he was piloting crashed off the Virginia coast, killing him and two others.
“One of Wes’ very, very dear friends called us and just said, ‘You’re going to need to pull over.’ So that’s when we found out and life hasn’t been the same since,” Susan said.
Susan and Wes’ father, Mark, had started driving to Virginia, where they had originally heard Wes was in surgery. They later learned he hadn’t made it to surgery.
Eight months went by before they found out what had happened. The Navy concluded that chafed wiring contributed to a fire, which caused the crash.
Along with his young family, Wes left behind detailed notes about procedural and mechanical worries he experienced while flying the helicopter, a MH-53E Sea Dragon.
“He was in charge of maintenance and was trying to share concerns he had and nothing was changing,” Susan said. “Nobody was responding.”
Nicole took it upon herself to finish Wes’ work of fighting for improvements. Through her efforts, with the help of a reporter named Mike Hixenbaugh, a history of challenges within the Naval community, as well as several other major accidents involving the 53E helicopters were uncovered.
Wes’ story, and their work, caught the attention of a team of reporters at Investigative Studios, established by investigative journalists, alumni of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and other media members.
Together, they sought answers to the question of who was responsible for Wes’ death.
In December 2015, they embarked for their first shoot for a film titled, “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?”
FOX8 asked that same question to Susan, before a screening of the film at RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem.
“That’s a very complex question and that’s what the movie’s all about,” she said.
The film details what the journalists referred to as 58 “Class A mishaps” involving the CH-53E Super Stallion and MH-53 Sea Dragon, which are the most serious of type of military aviation accident. The Navy defines Class A mishaps as aviation accidents resulting in a fatality, permanent disability or more than $2 million in damage to – or destruction of – the aircraft. Prior to 2009, Class A mishaps required $1 million in damage or loss of life.
That figure includes a test flight which resulted in the deaths of four Sikorsky Aircraft employees in 1996.
“If they need those machines to fly then they need to take care of them,” Susan said.
Some of the helicopters had been grounded to address wiring and fuel line issues and the Navy promised a more intensive effort to ensure they were corrected as quickly and effectively as possible.
“They’ve assured us, and we’ve asked them, ‘Are those aircraft safe now?’ ‘Yes,’ has been the answer,” Mark said.
Wes’ concerns, when not focused on the mechanical, often centered around a lack of funding to properly maintain the helicopters.
“It’s good to see the military budget go up and it’s like, ‘Well where’s the money being spent?’ That’s a different question,” Mark added.
A November 2018, article in The Virginian-Pilot says the film “also details how hard it is to do the right thing when you are a sailor at the bottom of a $700 billion pile of money. New, high-tech, billion-dollar weapons systems make a lot of powerful people rich. Maintaining a fleet of old, flying buses — one description of the Sea Dragon — does not. So maintenance can take a back seat.”
“A lot of people are getting rich, but a lot of machinery is not getting taken care of,” Susan said.
While sitting on a bench alongside a memorial for Wes at the Woodland Classroom inside the Greensboro Arboretum, the Van Dorns detailed conversations they’ve had following screenings of the film.
“The response we’ve had from folks that were in the military all gave examples of things they had experienced themselves,” Mark said.
They’re also hoping to have the film seen by more people, both civilian and military, as they push for funds to be spent more on attention to detail opposed to the more “showy.”
“A continuance of improvements in maintaining equipment so that they would put their own children on it,” Susan said.
She continued to say leadership levels need to be aware that “underlings have something significant to say” and should be heard.
The film has already won awards at the Columbus International Film & Animation Festival, RiverRun, Monarch Film Festival and Mill Valley Film Festival.
The film sold out a venue during RiverRun in Greensboro.
“Supporting our troops is more than waving flags,” Susan said.